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Possession and Exorcism

The concept of possession by and exorcism of deceased souls (dibukim; dybbuks) who inhabited the bodies of unwilling hosts is based on the kabbalistic concept of gilgul (transmigration), found in the Zohar and other medieval sources. ‘Ibur neshamah (soul impregnation) is a related concept also found in kabbalistic sources; it refers to the penetration of a kabbalist’s soul by the additional soul of an ancient sage who aids him in a spiritual quest. ‘Ibur neshamah was valued as a positive, highly prized form of possession.

A dybbuk, on the other hand, had committed a sin that needed to be expiated before the soul could go either to heaven or Gehenna. The person being possessed sometimes had a connection to the dybbuk and at other times was just an individual whose body the dybbuk was able to enter. The dybbuk could only be exorcised (forced to relinquish control over the victim and depart) by a great rabbi, usually a kabbalist. This ability to exorcise dybbuks and to deal in general with possession was first found among the kabbalists of Safed (in the Land of Israel) and was disseminated through hagiographical story collections and kabbalistic texts published in the seventeenth century.

Some scholars have suggested that the stories originally served to validate the doctrine of transmigration and demonstrate the magical powers and saintliness of the kabbalist performing the exorcism. Recently, other perspectives have been advanced, emphasizing that women and young girls predominated among those possessed, and that the practice was used as a means of social control, or, alternatively, in cases of ‘ibur neshamah, as a way for females to gain a public voice. Other investigators find parallels with the contemporaneous European witch craze and also suggest that the kabbalistic milieu had a particular interest in the relationship between living and dead souls, with the dybbuk straddling both worlds.

The term dybbuk, derived from the Hebrew expression ruaḥ ha-medabek (the spirit who cleaves), was first used in eighteenth-century Europe. Previously, the term ruaḥ ra‘ (evil spirit) was used for designating the deceased soul. There were a number of possession and exorcism accounts in Eastern Europe prior to the rise of Hasidism. The earliest published account of a Safed exorcism is in the Mayse-bukh, published in Basel in 1602. There is also a Yiddish manuscript from Prague dating from the first half of the seventeenth century, giving a brief description of three exorcisms performed by Yitsḥak Benish (d. 1647).

Shortly afterward, “‘Ma‘aseh shel ruaḥ be-Korets” (Tale of an Exorcism in Koretz) was published, most probably in Prague in the 1660s. It is a highly unusual, 16-page Yiddish chapbook (mayse-bikhl), rather than a more typical piece that was part of a larger work. Rather than being a hagiographic account glorifying a particular holy man or a work validating the concept of gilgul (as were other examples of this genre), this tale is the first example of a new genre, a narrative designed to entertain rather than edify.

The last pre-Hasidic story of this type is “Ma‘aseh Adonai ki nora’ hu’” appended to Mosheh Graf’s Zera‘ kodesh (1696). This account was based on an actual incident, and gives specific details of events that transpired, even mentioning all the rabbis involved in the exorcism. Its purpose was the traditional one of validating the doctrine of transmigration.

While the ability to exorcise was characteristic of the ba‘ale shem of the era, Hasidism took a different approach to the phenomenon. Details of actual possession and exorcism receded in importance; and the new emphasis was on the Hasidic tsadik and his holiness, which was demonstrated by his ability to exorcise dybbukim.

There are two exorcism stories in Shivḥe ha-Besht (In Praise of the Ba‘al Shem Tov), the hagiographical biography of the founder of Hasidism, who died in 1760. Both stories took place before the Ba‘al Shem Tov became a public figure and were part of the process of his public revelation. As the power to exorcise a dybbuk was only given to a true tsadik, these incidents confirmed his holiness and demonstrated his charismatic claims.

A number of exorcism accounts are found in later Hasidic hagiographical literature. In each case, the purpose of the story is to demonstrate the holiness of the tsadik involved; details of the event, to the extent that they exist, are tangential at best. In the early twentieth century, the concept of the dybbuk was catapulted into modern Jewish consciousness by S. An-ski’s play, The Dybbuk; a film version, produced in 1938, became a great classic of prewar Yiddish cinema.

Suggested Reading

J. H. Chajes, Between Worlds: Dybbuks, Exorcists and Early Modern Judaism (Philadelphia, 2003); Matt Goldish, ed., Spirit Possession in Judaism: Cases and Contexts from the Middle Ages to the Present (Detroit, 2003); Gedalyah Nigal, “Dybbuks, Possession and Exorcism” in Magic, Mysticism and Hasidism, trans. Edward Lewin, pp. 67–133 (Northvale, N.J., 1994); Gedalyah Nigal, Sipure dibuk be-sifrut Yisra’el, 2nd ed. (Jerusalem, 1994), summary in English; Yohanan Petrovsky-Shtern, “The Master of an Evil Name: Hillel Ba‘al Shem and His Sefer ha-ḥeshek,AJS Review 28 (2004): 217–248; Sarah Zfatman-Biller, “Gerush ruḥot be-Prag be-me’ah ha-17: Le-She’elat mehemanuto ha-historit shel z´a’nr ‘amami” Meḥkere Yerushalayim be-folklor yehudi 3 (1982): 7–33; Sarah Zfatman-Biller, “‘Ma‘aseh shel ruaḥ be-K-K Korets’: Shalav ḥadash be-hitpatḥuto shel z´a’nr ‘amami,” Meḥkere Yerushalayim be-folklor yehudi 2 (1982): 17–65.